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Compared to the new "Take Shelter," Little Rock director Jeff Nichol's haunting second effort, his "Shotgun Stories" now seems strong but small-bore. (Almost literally so: the screenwriter and director delivers one interpretation of his debut film's anthological title when he pans his camera over the bare back of Son, his hero, and shows it pocked with buckshot.) If "Shotgun Stories," which follows a blood feud among sets of Arkansas brothers, was a keyhole character study, "Take Shelter," admirably, flings open the front door and has the filmmaker running confidently into big-sky Western territory, tinged with some Hitchcockian dread.
That "Take Shelter" feels like the more expansive cinematic experience is unusual, given its claustrophobic premise. Curtis, a construction worker striving to provide for his wife and daughter, becomes troubled by visions of blackbirds swarming into a helix formation then dropping dead at his feet. Other premonitions lash him with caramel-colored raindrops and wind gusts from twin funnel clouds. All this makes the shadowy, earthen cloister of the backyard storm shelter look more and more appealing, and life above-ground fraught — too much to take, and let, in.
In the film's opening sequence, Nichols establishes Curtis and his family as residents of a small-ish town where backyards seep into farmland. In these shots, the camera lingers no more over the small mound of earth leading down into the storm cellar than on the rusting junk pile in the corner of the yard, or, for that matter, the rolling clouds at the top of the frame. In Nichols' new assurance with the panoptic view of filmmaking the precedent that most came to mind was Richard Donner's "Superman" — that movie's early portion, set in Kansas, when a teen-age Clark Kent discovers his otherness amid a placid eyeful of cornstalks and blue sky. The Fortress of Solitude has yet to beckon.
The possibility of the supernatural at work — and the sort of looming infinite crisis that usually befalls caped crusaders — rumbles at the edges of "Take Shelter." So, too, does the possibility that what plagues Curtis, with his family history of schizophrenia, are delusions of the particularly miserable grandeur of doomsday prophet-hood. The horror of "Take Shelter" is not that Curtis makes a fool of himself prophesying when no one will listen but that he swallows his shame, self-medicating and sneaking off for sessions with well-meaning but underqualified therapists. He's a male Cassandra whose curse is not incredibility but tightly corked self-loathing.
It takes a stolid, self-contained specimen of masculinity to carry this off, and Nichols was smart to resummon his muse, Michael Shannon. (Shannon played Son, of the scarred back, in "Shotgun Stories.") Shannon brings an aspect of stoic, walleyed noir to everything he does, which most often finds him in period pieces. His Curtis is a period man in modern times. His daughter needs a cochlear implant to reverse her deafness, so there are HMOs to negotiate; still, Shannon's Curtis is not struggling to make sense of 21st century life so much as resigning himself to its complications, like a cell-phone tower he warily eyes through a part in the window blinds, convinced it's giving him a tumor. (It is a sign of Curtis' timelessness that he not only takes a sit-down breakfast each morning, but one featuring fried sausage patties that have been hand-formed. Even at his film's bleakest moment, Nichols never fails to find romance in fatty stovetop food.)
Nichols and Shannon are a powerful pairing, but the work of the fine-boned Jessica Chastain, as Curtis' wife, Samantha, grounds the film emotionally as she struggles to keep the couple's finances on track for their daughter's surgery, and, in a very real sense, to keep her husband above-ground. As Samantha awakens completely to her husband's mania and its terrible ripple effects, the character could have amped the melodrama toward emotional manipulation. But Chastain, beneath her porcelain skin, contains a ferocity for maintaining normalcy to match Shannon's gathering storm.
If this all makes "Take Shelter" sound like a swirling, heart-racing thriller, make no mistake — despite intimations that the sky is falling, the very knotty sense of worry the film incites in the viewer is for the characters' sanity and stability, not the fate of the world. (Although when the film does give itself over to Curtis' visions, Nichols shows that, as a technician, he is amply prepared to pull off Armageddon.)
In fact, the film so sure-footedly picks up the path of naturalism upon which Nichols embarked with "Shotgun Stories" that "Take Shelter" is scarcely quotable. So to deliver the final summation, it falls to John Givings, the performance of Shannon's that earned him an Academy Award nomination, for "Revolutionary Road." "Plenty of people are onto the emptiness," Givings says, "but it takes real guts to see the hopelessness." Nichols has managed to craft a vision that sees it all, but still sees a way out.